Bullet trains to free Wi-Fi: Suresh Prabhu’s big moves in 2015 to get railways back on track

Much more to be done.
Much more to be done.
Image: Reuters/Ahmad Masood
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To say that Indian Railways has been in deep mess for decades would be a bit of an understatement.

The 163-year-old organisation has struggled mostly due to mismanagement and government apathy, despite a near monopoly in passenger and cargo movement by rail in Asia’s third largest economy. Heavy subsidy on passenger fares and lack of technological advancement have made it suffer both in terms of revenue and capacity.

But 2015 gave a glimmer of hope. Finally, it seemed, Indian Railways was ready to get back on track.

Last February, after many years, the railway budget presented by Suresh Prabhu was hailed as realistic because it shunned populist measures. The government announced steps to slowly and gradually rebuild railway infrastructure, including increasing track length from 114,000 kilometres to 138,000 kilometres by 2016.

Today, Indian Railways operate 19,000 trains daily, comprising over 12,000 passenger trains and 7,000 freight trains, and rakes in a little over Rs1.4 lakh crore ($20 billion) annually. The world’s fourth largest railway network is also amongst the biggest employers in India.

Quartz looks at the top five reforms that Indian Railways took in 2015 to change its course of action.

Bullet trains

In the run-up to the Indian elections in 2014, Narendra Modi had promised to bring bullet trains to India if he was voted to power.

By December 2015, India and Japan signed a deal to set up India’s first bullet train project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The journey is expected to cut short the travel duration between the two cities by six hours. The Modi government will spend a staggering $14.7 billion to set up the ecosystem.

Much of the funding for the project will come from Japan, which has promised a loan of $12 billion at a nominal 0.1% interest.

The construction of the 505-kilometre bullet train system will begin in 2017. It is expected to be completed by 2023. “Around 85% of this (bullet trains) would be made in India,” Prabhu told the Business Standard newspaper. “That will create an ecosystem. So, the spin-off benefit will be huge.”

However, the government has been criticised for spending a huge amount on this project, instead of upgrading existing infrastructure. ”This is not the right time for bullet trains in the country but there is a need for improving existing facilities, speed, infrastructure and comforts of passengers,” E Sreedharan, known as India’s “Metro Man” and among India’s best-known railway engineers, said on Feb. 18.

Big foreign money

Last November, Indian Railways signed deals with the American engineering major General Electric (GE) and French multinational Alstom to set up locomotive factories in Bihar. The Madhepura and Marhowra units in Bihar were first announced in 2006 but were stuck due to a variety of reasons for almost a decade.

The deal was finally announced a day after Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered an electoral thrashing in the state.

While GE will set up the Rs 14,656-crore ($2.13 billion) diesel locomotive factory at Marhowra, Alstom will build the Madhepura facility at Rs21,389 crore ($3.1 billion).

“The projects are part of the government’s decision to invite foreign direct investment in rail infrastructure,” Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister, said after the deal was signed. “The projects are a win-win for all.”

Reform committee report

Within four months of coming to power, the government had set up a panel to propose a restructuring plan for railways. It was headed by Niti Aayog member and economist Bibek Debroy.

The committee finally submitted its report in June last year, proposing five broad reforms that are currently being considered by the rail ministry. These measures include allowing private operators to run passenger and freight trains, revamping the railway board, and setting up an independent regulator to fix tariffs and safety norms.

“There should be clear division of responsibility between the government of India and railway organisations. The ministry will only be responsible for policy for the railway sector and the parliamentary accountability and will give autonomy to the Indian railways,” the committee said in its report.

Eco-friendly trains

Three eco-friendly measures were also introduced in 2015.

First, Indian Railways launched a CNG-operated train in January on the Rewari-Rohtak route. In June, it tested solar panel-operated coaches for the first time on a Rewari-Sitapur passenger train. The cost of installing the panels on each coach, according to the Economic Times, was about Rs3.9 lakh ($6,084), and was expected to save the railways over Rs1.24 lakh ($1,934) per year.

This move to try out solar and CNG-operated trains is expected to control railways’ ballooning fuel bill of some Rs30,000 crore ($4.3 billion) annually.

Indian Railways also introduced vacuum toilets last September. Vacuum toilets, where waste is cleaned using air instead of water, will also prevent corrosion of tracks. Currently, waste in the train often goes down the pipe on to the rail tracks.

Free Wi-Fi, better food and amenities

From rolling out a project to provide high-speed Wi-Fi at 400 railway stations to allowing fast-food chains to deliver food on trains, last year also saw attempts to considerably improve passenger amenities.

The free Wi-Fi project is among the world’s largest where Google has partnered with RailTel, Indian Railways’ telecom wing, which had laid out a 45,000km of optic fibre network across the country.

“Even with just the first 100 stations online, this project will make Wi-Fi available to millions of Indians—who pass through railway stations every day, making it the largest public Wi-Fi project in India and among the largest in the world by number of potential users,” a Google statement said.

Indian Railways has also tied up with fast-food restaurants, such as KFC, Domino’s, and Haldiram’s, to deliver food to passengers. In addition, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation website has been upgraded with five high-capacity servers to streamline e-ticketing operations.